“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time,” said French mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1656. It’s a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, though I’ve also seen it cited to Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, among others. Whoever said it, the point being made is about concision, and how much extra time and effort it takes to make a piece of writing short but sweet. (Just ask my editors.) With our attention spans atomized by the digital age, it seems counterintuitive that movies are stubbornly getting longer, yet the average feature’s running time is up a full 15 minutes from 1980.
But some filmmakers are re-embracing the advice of Shakespeare’s logorrheic windbag Polonius, who famously said “brevity is the soul of wit” during the second act of a four-and-a-half-hour long play. Last week on Netflix, Wes Anderson premiered four new short films based on stories by Roald Dahl. The first of which, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” is one of the filmmaker’s most dazzling achievements and his second masterpiece of the year. Coming to theaters this weekend is Pedro Almodóvar’s “Strange Way of Life,” a 31-minute Western starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as former lovers reunited on the range after 25 years apart. (It’s being screened along with the director’s marvelous 2020 short “The Human Voice,” followed by a taped Q&A with Almodóvar to fill the program out to feature length.)
The first film from Saint Laurent Productions, “Strange Way of Life” was made to show off the costumes of the design house’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello, so in a sense we’re watching one of the longest and saddest fashion commercials ever filmed. But hey, most movies are mercenary endeavors and this is quite a good one, even if it goes by far too quickly. Hawke plays a gruff, no-nonsense sheriff and reformed gunslinger who used to raise hell back in the day with Pascal’s soft-spoken Silva. When the latter unexpectedly turns up in town after a quarter-century’s absence, it doesn’t take more than a drink or two for them to fall right back into old habits. And bed.
I don’t know which is more startling, the fact that it took 18 years to get Pedro Almodóvar’s answer to “Brokeback Mountain” or the fact that “Brokeback Mountain” was 18 years ago. (Seeing Gen X avatar Ethan Hawke as a grizzled old cowpoke with his trademark goatee gone white is quite the gut check for viewers of a certain age, however wonderful his raspy Clint Eastwood impression.) But this romantic reunion arises under strained circumstances that are kept from the audience until a morning-after conversation that unfurls enough classically Almodovar-ian soap operatics to fill an entire feature. Turns out Silva didn’t show up in town by accident. His son is a fugitive hiding from our sheriff, who always gets his man.
There’s a long and oft-discussed history of American Westerns in which homoeroticism is hiding in plain sight. Who can forget the scene in Howard Hawks’ 1948 “Red River” that spawned a thousand queer studies thesis papers, when John Ireland says to Montgomery Clift, “There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?” Surprisingly, “Strange Way of Life” is not nearly as campy as expected — I thought we’d get way more “Johnny Guitar” references — but instead unfolds in the wistful, elegiac manner of late-period Almodóvar films like “Pain and Glory” or “Parallel Mothers.” (The one time he gets a little rowdy is a flashback sequence revising a famous moment from Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” a delightful bit of blasphemy.)
There’s an offhanded elegance to the way Almodóvar and his longtime cinematographer José Luis Alcaine construct their scenes that I find immensely pleasing to look at. Images flow into each other so seamlessly that even their minor work — and “Strange Way of Life” will never be considered major — has a baseline level of craft that puts most modern movies to shame. Almodóvar films are fluid, guiding your gaze across the screen with effortless grace. (He’s the antithesis of directors like Kenneth Branagh, who always seem to be poking you in the eye.) “Strange Way of Life” is so easy to watch, these 31 minutes seem to pass in five, which is a problem.
I know I’m being greedy, but I wanted more. The film ends exactly where it should, but it gets there too quickly. Almodóvar could have very easily fleshed out the supporting characters, built out the backstory and made “Strange Way of Life” into a full-length feature. The emotional kick of the film’s conclusion would have landed harder had we been able to spend more time with Silva and the sheriff. But then again, earlier that afternoon I attended a screening of a dreadful new science fiction film that groaned and wheezed its way to the two-hour mark, with the audience always at least 30 minutes ahead of the characters in figuring out the dopey plot surprises. So maybe it’s preferable to leave people wanting more?
“Strange Way of Life” is now in theaters.